Joseph E. Robert Jr., 59, who rose from a troubled childhood to become one of Washington’s wealthiest financiers and most generous philanthropists, known for his raucous annual Fight Night boxing event that raised millions of dollars for children’s charities, died Dec. 7 at his home in McLean. He had a glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer.
Mr. Robert’s death was confirmed by Mike McGillis, managing director of JER Partners, the real estate company Mr. Robert founded in 1981.
Through bravado and persistence, Mr. Robert asserted his place in Washington’s business firmament from an unlikely starting place. He had barely muddled through high school and was kicked out of college for fighting, rendering him homeless for more than a month. After working as a bouncer, selling encyclopedias and unloading trucks, he had an epiphany.
Convinced that he was throwing away his life, Mr. Robert decided to go into the real estate business and focus on distressed assets. He bought handfuls of real estate books and started purchasing condos in Beltsville when he was 20. In 1981, he launched his asset-management company, despite having been told that it was an unwise venture during a recession. He went to nearly 20 Washington area banks seeking a $500,000 loan.
Riggs National Bank finally agreed to give him the money after Mr. Robert assured the loan officer that he was “going to be the biggest real estate workout guy in town.”
He was right. In one of his most publicized deals, his J.E. Robert Cos. in 1990 won a government contract worth $41 million over three years to sell a grab bag of strip malls, apartment complexes and other assets worth billions of dollars held by failed savings and loan associations in Texas. The deal was part of an unprecedented effort by the Resolution Trust Corp., which oversaw the enormous S&L bailout, to recruit private asset-management companies.
By the 1990s, Mr. Robert had offices and properties around the world and at one point estimated his wealth at about $1 billion. Even when he went skiing, business came first. To keep up with business deals taking place in different time zones, he had a ski helmet equipped with a cellphone.
He had homes from Potomac to Colorado and a list of friends that included Oprah Winfrey, the rock star Bono, Middle East sheiks and Russian oligarchs. He squired glamorous women across the Mediterranean, survived a helicopter explosion near the North Pole and explored the Colombian jungle in search of guerrilla fighters.
Mr. Robert’s most prized possession: a piece of string from the garment of a Colombian tribal chief. He wore it tied around his wrist. Receiving the string “was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life,” Mr. Robert told Washington Business Journal. “I gave him the Gucci sunglasses I was wearing.”
After he made a huge fortune performing complicated financial transactions during the S&L crisis, Mr. Robert became one of the softest touches in town, raising and giving bushels of money for his two philanthropic devotions: children’s education and children’s health care.
The annual Fight Night at the Washington Hilton, a stag smoker featuring hostesses in slinky gowns and a high-amp performance by the Washington Redskins’ cheerleaders, has raised $50 million for children’s charities since 1990.
Mr. Robert directed tens of millions of his own dollars to children’s charities and also put the arm on others to give. In September 2009, after four years of effort, Mr. Robert’s Middle East connections allowed him to broker a deal with the royal family of Abu Dhabi that brought $150 million to Children’s National Medical Center.
Mr. Robert helped raise almost $1 billion for children and education in the Washington area and elsewhere. In 2000, he donated $25 million to Children’s Hospital for a new surgical center. He was chairman of the Washington Scholarship Fund, which raised money to send underprivileged children to private schools.
He served on the boards of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center because he wanted more inner-city children to be exposed to the arts.
His passion for Children’s Hospital began when he slept on the floor of one of its rooms when his son, Joseph III, was having surgery on his rib cage. Mr. Robert would eventually serve as chairman for a hospital campaign that raised $200 million.
Later, Mr. Robert flew to Iraq, where his son was serving in the Marines. At Camp Pendleton in San Diego, he helped organize a concert featuring pop stars Destiny’s Child, Kiss, Godsmack and Ted Nugent.
Joseph Edgar Robert Jr. was born Feb. 24, 1952, in Takoma Park and raised in Silver Spring. His father worked in real estate, and the family was often in debt.
“We never had any money,” Mr. Robert recalled in a 2007 interview. “I was always working. I had a paper route and worked at a restaurant.”